Julia Child: An American, Forever In Paris For generations of Americans, chef Julia Child was a fearless guide through the complexities of French cooking — on the page, and on her eight TV shows. Fresh Air revisits an interview with Child from 1989.

Julia Child: An American, Forever In Paris

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Julie Child introduced millions of Americans to French cooking with her 1961 book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." It helped launch her public-television career that lasted nearly four decades.

Her long-time editor, Judith Jones, said that Child changed the way cookbooks are written, aiming them at home cooks rather than professional chefs. Julia Child died in 2004 at the age of 91. Terry spoke with her in 1989. She asked Child how she thought attitudes about food had changed since the 1960s.

Ms. JULIA CHILD (Cook): Well, they've changed enormously. In the 1960s, you could eat anything you wanted, and of course, people were smoking cigarettes and all kinds of things, and there was no talk about fat and anything like that, and butter and cream were rife. Those were lovely days for gastronomy, I must say.

In those day, too, it was classical French cooking, and you didn't deviate from the rules. And then shortly after that, we got - in the 1970s - we got nouvelle cuisine, in which a lot of the old rules were kicked over. And then we had cuisine minceur, which people mixed up with nouvelle cuisine but was actually fancy diet cooking.

Then we went into the organic phase, where we had bean sprouts and tofu to a large extent. And now we're in kind of a fright situation, where people are very much afraid of fats and oils, and cholesterol has reared its ugly head.


GROSS: Are you afraid of cholesterol?

Ms. CHILD: Well, I think - cholesterol has become such a trendy word now, that I think a lot of people really don't know what it's all about, but they just know that they're afraid, and they're eating oat bran and getting diarrhea, or some people are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: So I hope we're going to get out of the silly season and get back into some good sense, because you're supposed to have a certain amount of fat. Twenty-five to 30 percent of your calories should be fat or oil because you need to process your vitamins, and if you don't have enough fat, they won't do you any good.

GROSS: I'm interested about the foods that you grew up eating. Now, you grew up in Pasadena, California.

Ms. CHILD: I did, indeed, and I grew up in the teens and the '20s, when most people had - or middle-class people - had maids or had someone to help. And we had very sensible, New England-type food because my mother came from New England - you know, roasts and vegetables and fresh peas and mashed potatoes. But nobody discussed food a great deal because it just wasn't done, and there was no wine served at the table, at least not in my family, who were very conservative. We always ate very well, but it wasn't talked about.

GROSS: Well, your family had a cook. Did you mother cook at all, and did you like to cook at all?

Ms. CHILD: No, she really didn't cook at all. She knew how to make baking powder biscuits and Welsh rarebit, and that's all she knew how to make, and I didn't do any cooking then - at all.

GROSS: Did you have any interest in cooking?

Ms. CHILD: I was always very hungry, but I had - I never did any cooking at all. It wasn't until I went over to China in World War II. I was with the OSS, and I just adored that Chinese food. It was so delicious. We were in Kunming and Chongqing. And then I met - there were a lot of sophisticated world travelers whom I met, and food was discussed a great deal. And then after the war, when I married and settled down in Washington, D.C., I began to cook and found that I enjoyed it immensely.

It always took me a very long time. I had Gourmet magazine and "The Joy of Cooking." And then we found ourselves in France, and I remember my first meal there. We had come over on the boat because that was in 1948, and airplane traffic was not rampant, or it hardly existed. And we had our big, old, blue Buick on the boat and drove from La Havre to Rouen, and I remember my first French meal. It was just delicious.

Of course, we had - we had wine, which I had not known much about, and oysters on the half shell, and then a beautiful dish of sole in white wine sauce with mushrooms, and I just couldn't get over it. I hadn't ever had that kind of food.

GROSS: Sounds very good. Before we continue about life in France, I want to just back up a little bit and go back to your childhood for a moment. You're over six-feet tall. So I'm sure you were a very tall girl.

Ms. CHILD: I'm the smallest in my family.

GROSS: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were you very athletic, and did you…?

Ms. CHILD: Oh very, yes. I played tennis and golf and all kinds of - I was very, very athletic, as one was in California, anyway, because you could do outdoor activities.

GROSS: Were you comfortable with your height, or were you self-conscious about it?

Ms. CHILD: Well, I didn't like dancing school when I was much taller than the boys, but I don't know. I got used to it perfectly easily.

GROSS: When you graduated from college, you went to New York with the hopes of becoming a novelist or writing for a magazine. Why did you…?

Ms. CHILD: Writing for the New Yorker, at least getting into Time or Newsweek. Nobody wanted me, for some strange reason.

GROSS: Why did you want to write, and were you sure that you wanted to have a career?

Ms. CHILD: Well, I was. I was romantic about the idea about writing or being on the stage. In those days, too, everyone was fascinated with the theater, but I wanted to do one or the other. And then I got a job at W. & J. Sloane furniture store in advertising and publicity, which I enjoyed very much. And then along came the war, and I got into the - I went down to Washington and eventually got into the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS.

GROSS: Did you want to be a spy?

Ms. CHILD: I did want to be a spy, and I thought I'd be a very good one because no one would think that someone as tall as I would possibly be a spy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: But of course, I ended up doing office - menial office work. I was in the files the whole time, which I actually, though - well, it was a fascinating as an organization to be in, and at least I knew everything that was going on.

DAVIES: The late Julia Child speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1989 interview with Julia Child, who died in 2004.

GROSS: Julia Child, when you co-wrote "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," did you see it as a way to introduce Americans to French cuisine?

Ms. CHILD: Yes, I was tremendously interested in French cuisine because it was - it's the only cuisine that has the real rules on how to cook, and I wanted to - because I had start in quite late. I was about in my early 30s when I started cooking - and I found that the recipes in most, in all the books I had were really not adequate. They didn't tell you enough. And I'm - for one, I won't do anything unless I'm told why I'm doing it.

So I felt that we needed fuller explanations so that if you followed - if you followed one of those recipes, it should turn out exactly right. And that's why the recipes are very long, but they have full detail. My feeling is that once you know everything and have digested it, then it becomes part of you.

GROSS: When you moved back to the States and you wanted to continue French cooking, were there ingredients that you couldn't find in the States?

Ms. CHILD: No - well, there were some differences. I think the cream was not as thick, but it was easy enough to make your own, what they call crème fraiche, by adding a little buttermilk or yogurt to heavy cream and making it thick. And in those days cream was very chic. Nowadays, people are very afraid of it.

But - and the flour is different, but you could - because the French, general French flour is softer and more made for pastries, and you can perfectly well duplicate that by using part unbleached, all-purpose flour with a little bit of plain, bleached cake flour added to it, which softens the gluten content. And of course the meat cuts are different, but otherwise, I didn't find anything too difficult or impossible to do.

GROSS: What do you think the American attitude was toward French cooking when your book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," came out?

Ms. CHILD: Well, at that point, when "Mastering the Art" came out, French cooking was very much in vogue because we had the J.F. Kennedys in the White House, and they had their wonderful French chef, and at the same time, people were beginning to be able to get easily over to Europe because air traffic, air flights were available.

Before, you had to go by boat, and it just took so long that only the upper classes could go over there. So suddenly, Europe became available, and Americans were able to go over there and taste the food, and it became very chic and very - people were very much interested in it.

GROSS: You became nationally famous in the United States for your cooking show. I read that your cooking show started because you were a guest on someone else's show when your book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" came out, and there was such a big response that they gave you your own show. What did you do that…?

Ms. CHILD: Well, at that time when they did a book review, and I had to do something. You couldn't just talk about it. So I beat up some egg whites in a big copper bowl, that kind of thing that people had not seen before, and I made an omelet. And at that time, there were no cooking shows at all on television, and people said, well, why don't we have a cooking show?

And so I did three pilots, and they got a lot of response because there weren't any on at that point, and French cooking was very much in vogue. So they said let's try 13 shows and see how it goes. And at that time, also, public television was mostly talking heads, and they wanted to have something that was a little more lively. And it started in Boston, and then I think Pittsburgh was the first to pick it up, and then San Francisco and finally New York, and so that's how - that's how it really started in.

FLATOW: Were your early shows live?

Ms. CHILD: No, nothing was live, but the early shows, because we were very, very, very strict budget, it was really live on tape. And so once we started in, we didn't stop at all unless there was a terrible disaster, and we only had about two or three, I think.

GROSS: Tell me one of the terrible disasters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: Well, one time, I was cooking - blanching some broccoli, and it was in a salad basket, which was lowered into a big kettle, and when I picked it up, my fork slipped, and it all fell on the floor.

I didn't pick it up and use it, so we did stop because it was a real mess. But every time we stopped, it would cost, I mean, several hundred dollars because it always took half an hour to get back again, and you have to pay overtime.

And another time, there was a short circuit on my microphone, and every time I touched the stove, the microphone would go:

(Soundbite of buzzing)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: And I'd clutch my breast. So we had to stop for that, but otherwise, we just didn't stop at all. And then people - it's funny. People would say well, I saw you drop that chicken on the floor, which of course I never did. All I was did was flip a potato pancake into the stove, and then I put it back into the pan, and I said: Well, if you're all alone in the kitchen, nobody will know.

It's funny that people saw me do that to a chicken. Isn't that funny how people will say that?

GROSS: So, were there often mistakes in the actual show that you would recover from, thinking that this kind of thing happens all the time if you're a real cook.

Ms. CHILD: And I think some people would accuse me of doing things purposely, but anyone who has been in the kitchen knows that awful things happen all the time, and you just, if you're a cook, you have to make do with whatever happens.

GROSS: I'm sure you must have seen the Dan Aykroyd "Saturday Night Live" impression of you.

Ms. CHILD: Oh, yes. We have a tape of that. That's great fun.

GROSS: Do you? What he'd always do is, when he was doing you, is take little nips of wine until he got really giddy while he was cooking.

Ms. CHILD: No, I know, and people accuse me of that, too, which of course - and I know Frank Prial of the New York Times said that he saw me pick up a bottle and drink out of it, which of course I would never do in public. But I think his book didn't sell very well, so I don't care.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: No, I would never. That's a - that would be a very gauche thing to do in public, wouldn't it?

GROSS: It was French cooking that got you started as a cook. How much of your time is devoted now to French cuisine?

Ms. CHILD: That's kind of hard to say because what is important about - to me about French cuisine is the techniques, because they are the techniques of good cooking. It's hard to say, when you say French cuisine, what that means anymore. It used to mean the School of Escoffier in classical French cooking, but what everybody who has any training at all is - uses French techniques because those are the basis of good cooking.

DAVIES: Julia Child, speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Child died in 2004 at the age of 91. You can find audio and video of Child discussing her permanent kitchen display at the Smithsonian at npr.org. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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